Critical Race Theory: The Devil’s Greatest Trick?

How Demonizing Critical Race Theory Allows Us to Ignore the Stain of Racism

This newsletter is about the most recent political weapon for dividing Americans and resisting civic progress—Critical Race Theory. Catapulted from obscurity to celebrity in the latest culture war skirmish, Critical Race Theory has become a potent (and lucrative) diversionary tactic for avoiding the substantive debate our nation really needs on race and racism.

Big Story

Critical Race Theory, after years in the academic outback, dominates our headlines nearly every day. Even as it has found itself at the center of another bitter political scrap, Critical Race Theory remains ill-defined and frequently misunderstood.

At the recent Faith and Freedom Forum, the endearingly-malleable Senator Ted Cruz labelled Critical Race Theory “as racist as the Klansmen in white sheets.” Since the Ku Klux Klan supported white supremacy and lynching, among other sins, the Senator’s awkward attempt at equivalency is at best puzzling. Of course, he didn’t stop there, adding, “Critical Race Theory says America’s … irredeemably racist … and seeks to turn us against each other.”

Such absurd sentiments might be easy to dismiss if they were limited to demagogues like Ted Cruz, but they are the inevitable exhaust of a well-orchestrated campaign to score political points and demonize anti-racism initiatives. If we care about the future of America, we cannot afford to disregard this campaign’s greatest threat—convincing us that America’s greatest sin—racism—no longer exists.

Big Question

If we want to end racism in America, we have to ask the right questions and demand honest answers, not only of our leaders, but of ourselves.

The Critical Race Theory debate is riddled with tough—and sometimes unanswerable—questions. How racist is America? Is America fundamentally or irredeemably racist? To what extent was racism intrinsic to our founding? How should guilt be apportioned? To what degree is American racism systemic, structural or institutional? How much racial progress have we made?

It is not that these questions don’t need to be asked. Rather, it is that allowing them to paralyze us could impede our most vital task—to confront the stain of racism and remove it from our daily lives. The more time we spend on questions we can’t answer, the more space we create for political opportunism and the less time for solutions. To eradicate racism, we first recognize its threat to our future and ask serious questions about how to create a fairer, more unified nation. In short, we must confront racism in an honest, constructive way.

Big Idea

America is a work in progress, especially on racial issues. We ought to be able to agree on the progress made since our founding and the need for more progress in the coming years.

Instead of obsessively seeking short-term moral gratification or partisan political gains, we should focus on long-term solutions. Instead of treating Critical Race Theory and other efforts to address racism as red herring, we should debate ideas for expanding opportunity, institutionalizing fairness, strengthening democracy and unifying communities. It is only by finding solutions that we can preserve the American experiment. It is only by finding common ground that we can realize the hopes of our founders.

Racism poses an existential threat to our entire nation. Regardless of our race or our biases (and, as humans, we all have biases), we must work together to forge a better future. We will outline our thoughts on these issues in more detail in our next commentary. Our past commentaries on other issues are available at Civic Way.

Promising Initiatives

  • City of Dubuque IA – created Inclusive Dubuque, a network with 60 government, nonprofit, business and philanthropic partners, to promote community justice and social equity, serve as a data clearing house, collaboration facilitator and learning accelerator and establish the Community Equity Profile
  • Dane County WI – conducted a racial equity assessment of county operations, recommended strategies for achieving equitable outcomes, including community and county metrics, and established an Office for Equity and Inclusion
  • King County WA – crafted an Equity and Social Justice Strategic Plan 2016-2022 with guidelines for internal policies and county/community partnerships
  • Louden County Public Schools – developed two plans for combatting racism, the Comprehensive Equity Plan and Action Plans to Combat Systemic Racism
  • Washington State – formed State Office of Equity to assist local governments with diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives
  • National League of Cities (NLC) – NLC’s Race, Equity and Leadership (REAL) initiative produced a Municipal Action Guide for Advancing Racial Equity
  • S&P Global – sponsored racial justice conversations with employees, doubled Diversity & Inclusion investments, created Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) and contributed $1M to equity and racial justice non-profits
  • BASF – global diversity and inclusion (D&I) leader in Diversity Inc’s Top 50, created talent dashboard to track success of D&I training programs and established 500-employee Ambassador Network to foster open corporate culture

Other Views 

  • What Is Critical Race Theory, and Why Is It Under Attack? Stephen Sawchuk, Education Week, May 18, 2021
  • How a Conservative Activist Invented the Conflict Over Critical Race Theory, Benjamin Wallace-Wells, New Yorker, June 18, 2021
  • What Critical Race Theory Critics Are Actually Criticizing, Charles Fain Lehman , Fellow, Manhattan Institute, June 21, 2021
  • Top Loudoun school officials defend equity work against charges of ‘critical race theory, Hannah Natanson, Washington Post, June 2, 2021
  • Critical Race Theory: A Primer, Khiara Bridges, 2021
  • Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement, Kimberle Crenshaw (Editor), 1996
  • Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson, 2020
  • On Juneteenth, Annette Gordon-Reed Liveright, 2020

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